An account of a young African visitor to Europe, Not a Refugee Seeker

by: Ehab Ghirmay

It was in mid 2016. After staying for two weeks in Europe, I was about to return to Eritrea. But, before my return, I decided to visit my “refugee seeking” cousin in one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. She lives in a camp with many refugee seekers, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, West Africa… After I spent the night there, the next morning we went downtown together. Taking pictures is one of my hobbies. So, I took many pictures of attractive and green sceneries, ancient buildings; of white and black people, of crowd people rushing for work; of high traffic; and so on.

I was totally amazed by the civilization of Europe and by the discipline of the people I talked to. Then I wrote on my Facebook page: “Europeans have built Europe successfully. Although it is interesting to live in a civilized world (for foreigners), it is more interesting to build your own civilization in your homeland.”

Reading this, one of my friends who got refugee in Europe nine years age, reacted immediately. “You realise things when you experience them. What we had expected about Europe and what the reality looked like when we arrived here is totally different. Still so many people are taking that dangerous journey to Europe. Europa tebelea eya xenihatna “(we came to collect money, but Europe was already been eaten)

Many Eritrean young refugees whom I talked to while my stay in Europe, they regret the risk they took and the money they spent in order to reach Europe.  “When I put my footsteps in Europe, I thought that I would immediately be rich; I expected it to be like collecting money from the streets. Now I am not even sure whether I will be able to payback my debts or not. My family paid about twenty thousand dollars for me to reach Europe, borrowing the money from different relatives.”

When I asked many of my informants about the main reason that forced them to flee their homeland, most of them said that it was for economic reasons: “We came to improve our livelihood and help our parents back home. Living here is safe but not easy to make good money, people say America or Canada or I don’t know where… are better,” said a frustrated young Eritrean girl who crossed from the Sudan to Libya and from there to Italy through the infamous Mediterranean Sea journey.

When Eritrea was under the brutal Ethiopian colonization from mid 1950s to 1991, many Eritreans left their country to seek asylum in different parts of the world. Especially in the early 1980s, when the civil war in the Eritrean Revolution came to an end, many fighters of the defeated Eritrean Liberation Forces crossed to the Sudan and many of them got refugee in European countries, America, Canada…. Europe must had been generous by then, most of them were able to make good money. They built and bought big houses in their homeland, a sign of dignity among many Eritreans, and helped their families economically.

Eritrea got its hard won liberation in 1991, after the longest and most devastating liberation struggle in Africa. Then the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front had to transform itself to a national government despite all the shortcomings it had. After that bloody thirty years of war, building a war torn nation started in a very successful way and with high public participation. When, after seven years of nation building and peacemaking endeavours were on the peak, Ethiopia again invaded sovereign Eritrean territory and declared war against Eritrea in 1998. Another destructive war that took many lives and three years followed. Following the war and the long no-peace-no-war situation, many young Eritreans left their country, believing that they would cross to Europe and would make good money. But, Europe is no more generous; the refugee crisis is on top of its agenda now.

I read a book entitled, Megzaeti Sygnora (Sygnora’s Enslavement) a number of times. The author, an Eritrean refugee who migrated to Italy in the early 1980s, presents his account in the Tigryna language in a very entertaining way. The book describes the author’s journey from the Sudan to Rome and the challenges he and his friends faced working with Sygnors in Rome, the city that they had expected to be like a heaven on earth; the city that they had heard a lot about and about its Blackman-loving-rich girls. On his forward the author, Mr. Ghebrezgabhier Ghebremeskel, said that he was forced to write the book in order to describe the hardship of life in Italy; so that other youngsters wouldn’t flee their homeland; or if they did, they had to be well prepared about the real situation. The author confesses that his expectations about life in Europe and the reality on ground confused him a lot. More than thirty years since Gebriele, how his madam pronounces his name, wrote his account, the reality and the perception of immigrants still has not changed.

“At first the Italians came to our land and colonised us. But now we came to their land by ourselves and asked them to enslave us,” the writer regrets. The Italians declared Eritrea as their African colony in January 1890 and stayed until 1941 when they were defeated by the British during the Second World War. Thousands of Italians were inhabited or seek refugee in Eritrea and furthermore were expected to arrive.

When I was in grade six, in 1990, I read a book entitled: Helena… Neyre Ele Ayhsun (Helena… I can never say I used to live). The book narrates the story of a young Eritrean girl that was adapted to a childless Italian family. Although the adoptee were very kind and raised Helena up in a very good way, one day every confidence she had started to decline when she felt in love with her Italian classmate. One day, her boy friend, Michael, took Helena home in order to introduce her to his parents. The parents got mud when they saw a black girl; Helena heard her boy friend’s family talking to him about her colour angrily. Then she realises that she was a different person. Her adoptee had convinced her that she inherited the unique colour from her great grandmother, so that she was lucky. For years, Helena felt proud about her skin colour… However, when she realised that wasn’t true, she starts to investigate her Eritrean identity and meet her parents…

Back to my latest journey to Europe. When I was taking a picture of a statue, a man pushing a big stone, and water coming up and getting down his face, one of my informants said: “Hey! Tell him that he is pushing it; but we, Eritreans, hold it up!”

I posted this on Facebook as well. One of my friends reacted: “The question is how long we are going to hold it.”

“Building your own destiny is worth living. ‘Rome was not built over night!'” was my answer. So, my opinion is should we try to solve our problems at home or continue to migrate to the refuge frustrated Europe?

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